Online communities are looking for a sense of relationship – not simply a place to share information.
– Heidi Campbell in “6 Traits People Value in Online Faith Communities.” (link below)
Our first book-study group started in August with about 15 people. By October we were on our second book with nearly 40 people joining us on Zoom weekly. We open with a prayer or a poem, check in with everyone, then break into small groups of 4 to 5 for some in-depth discussion.
We hear from participants that the most valuable thing about our weekly gatherings is the companionship – the chance to be with others of our own age and interests, to learn from others’ perspectives, and to listen to our souls as we give voice to what we have been thinking. We intentionally read authors who write about the spirituality of aging and put forth some provocative reflection/discussion questions. (See recommended books at Reading List.)
It beats driving in the dark to the church parish hall on Wednesday evening. We connect across many miles and several denominations. If one of us moves from Texas to California to be closer to her family, she doesn’t disconnect from the book group.
We are careful about the books we select and work at keeping the group involved. Two or three people mentor the group by sending questions for reflection – and later discussion when we meet – each week prior to the online gathering. We allow time at the beginning and closing of our sessions for chit-chat and “Hi, how are you?” We indulge conversations when two old friends recognize each other on the Zoom screen.
What we have learned about study by Zoom:
– It takes at least two people to lead each session – one to welcome people as they join the group each week and one to admit people and manipulate Zoom. Whomever is hosting the study (the person who sends out the Zoom invite before each session) can name one or two or more co-hosts once you open the room.
– Once you have gathered for the session, break people into breakout rooms of 4 to 6. Let the Zoom system do it. Arranging breakout rooms before everyone arrives can mean that some assigned to a group won’t show up that week. If you have several people from the same congregation, break them up. Think in terms of small-table groups at an in-person conference.
– Advise participants before the start of any new study that you will not be able to handle tech issues during the sessions. Offer a practice session a week or so before the study begins. Tell them what features of Zoom you will be using and go over them in practice sessions. If people show up to a session with tech issues (they can’t hear, they can’t see, they don’t know which button to push), don’t put them into a small group. Keep them in the main room and work with them individually. Don’t keep the entire group waiting.
– Stress that participants should mute themselves when they are in the main room. The host or co-host can mute them if need be. Unmute for the breakout groups.
– If you are a large group, advise participants to use “speaker” view rather than “gallery” view in the main room. That way, if your participant thumbnails spill over onto more than one page, everyone will be able to see whomever is speaking. Use gallery view for the breakout groups.
– It’s best to send the Zoom invite for the week the day before the session so it is close to the top of everyone’s incoming email list.
– Encourage participants to use a laptop computer or tablet, not a phone. Computer screens are easier to manipulate and will allow participants to see more people than a tablet. Phone is even more limited.
– Keep a roster of participants with their email addresses and cell phone numbers and make sure hosts and co-hosts have it. Share it with the entire group only if everyone in the group is OK with that.
– Set a day and time of each week for the study. Claim it as your own. We use Thursdays at 4 p.m. People of this age can meet during the daytime; take advantage of that. Meet each week for 60 minutes. Start and stop on time. If you wish, invite folks to bring their own adult beverage and stay after the session for another 30 minutes for “happy half-hour.”
If you have questions about starting an online book study, email Marjorie George at firstname.lastname@example.org.